Kent State professor recounts her time as an international student
From a very young age, Kent State communications professor Ikram Toumi had dreams of traveling the world as a journalist. But the reality of coming to America was a lot different than the one she envisioned.
Toumi grew up in Tunis, Tunisia alongside her parents and three siblings. Her large, extended family visited her home often for family dinners and lived not too far away from her home. She said her culture is not only family-oriented, but close as a whole.
“In America, there’s so much space between everyone,” Toumi said. “In Tunisia, there’s no such thing as a personal bubble, but our country is also not as large as America.”
Her family soon extended when she moved to Texas and met her husband Mourad Krifa. She was accepted under the Fulbright scholarship and studied at Texas Tech University and later on the University of Texas to receive her doctoral degree. Not knowing many Tunisians at college, she was excited to meet someone else who shared her culture, but was even more surprised to find that Krifa too was from Tunis.
“When I studied there, my friend and I were the only Tunisians there,” Toumi said. “He went to the global communications center to ask if there were any other Tunisians on campus and he found out that there was a Tunisian professor, Mourad. We got his contact information and from then on, we hung out every day.”
Although she was excited to explore outside of Tunisia, she still missed her family back home. In Tunisia, she only ate her culture’s food, but in America, it was difficult to find Tunisian food. As of recently, there’s a few Tunisian restaurants underway in her town, but it’s something she still struggles with. Toumi also struggled with anxiety initially. She would isolate from friends in her dorm room frequently and not go out. These feelings of loneliness would lessen during breaks when she flew home to see them, but she still missed being around her culture.
When adapting to another culture, it is natural and in worst cases, forced upon immigrants to assimilate. According to the Britannica definition, assimilation is the act of taking in ideas, information or cultures and full understanding. While learning another culture’s way of life can be harmless, it can also sometimes lead to shame in one own’s culture.
Kent State political science alum Abdul Bangura also understands the damaging effects of what not being around people from your own culture can do to you. Bangura recounts a time that he was sharing his presentation during class and his professor asked him to repeat himself numerous times. He says he in turn felt embarrassed of his thick accent and only spoke when called upon from then on.
“The most difficult thing for me was leaving my comfort zone,” Bangura said. “I’m from Sierra Leone and when I came here, people could barely understand me because of my accent. I was so used to speaking fast, but I had to speak slower so people could understand what I was trying to say, which was frustrating.”
Although Toumi’s original plan was to become a journalist, she found that the importance of communication was needed and decided to become a professor instead. As an international student in America, they’re introduced to a variety of different ethnicities, races and religions. She tries to take those experiences and break down the importance of remaining respectful, understanding and open-minded in her intercultural communications class. There, students are taught how much damage is done when the media focuses on a stereotype of a race, how to deal with micro-aggressions and projects that let students explore outside of their country. One race-related media story that still haunts her is the death of Trayvon Martin.
“I would say that was the biggest culture-shock to me. I knew the U.S. had different racial dynamics, but I didn’t know it was to this extent,” Toumi said. “Just seeing the discussions in the media of whether or not he was dangerous, or if Zimmerman was right…that would never happen in Tunisia.”
This incident helped Toumi really understand the racial tensions in America. In Tunisia, a young black boy being shot by law enforcement would never be seen on the news. Seeing this experience in America and being around other cultures so different from her own, Toumi said she now the importance of learning from them and what she can teach others.
While leaving your country behind can be scary at first, she wants international students to accept the fact that they’re going to experience anxiety at first and to embrace the cultural differences as much as possible.